In Situ: The Priceless Plants of the Pavlovsk Experimental Station

Editor's note: Elise Blackwell's first novel was a fictionalized account of a plant scientist during the Nazi siege of Leningrad (now known as St. Petersburg). During those bleak months, a dozen scientists starved to death while protecting the seed collection built by Nikolai Vavilov, a critical bank for the genetic diversity of the world's food supply. This week, the St. Petersburg Institute named after Vavilov lost a key court battle with real estate developers who want to build on a key piece of the research organization's land.

The editor of the Portuguese translation of my first novel, Hunger, sent me a link through twitter this week. He wanted to know if I'd heard about the impending destruction of the Vavilov Institute's Pavlovsk Experimental Station, which cares for 5,500 distinct varieties of apples, pears, cherries, berries, and other fruits, most of which exist only there. I had not.

While preparing to write that novel, I had experimented with hunger. Determined to go three or maybe four days with no food, I lasted until dinnertime the first night. I cannot imagine starving to death without eating anything I could get my hands on. This delivered my narrator: a man unable to live up to his own ideals and the expectations of colleagues. A man of appetites. A greedy sensualist. A secret snacker. A made-up character. The actual scientists of the Vavilov Institute didn't cheat--and many did not cheat death. They sacrificed their lives (slowly, painfully, across months) to preserve the collection of seeds that they and their colleagues had collected in expeditions to several continents. The seeds and tubers they protected included grains descended from the early Babylonians as well as South American potatoes resistant to the potato blight that (with help from the British government and New World immigration policies) starved a million Irish. After drought wiped out important varieties of Ethiopian food crops and war did the same in parts of the Balkan Peninsula, it was seeds from the Vavilov Institute that permitted replanting.


    The Decemberists
    (inspired by Hunger)
Excerpted lyrics:

We made our oath to Vavilov
We'd not betray the Solanum
The acres of asteraceae
To our own pangs of starvation
When the war came
When the war came

And the war came with a curse and a caterwaul
And the war came with all the poise of a cannonball
And they're picking out our eyes by coal and candlelight
When the war came, the war came hard

With all the grain of Babylon

In 2003 Seed magazine asked me to write an article about a previous threat to the Vavilov Institute: Vladimir Putin (whose grandmother grew so thin during the siege that she was mistakenly stacked with corpses) wanted to evict the Institute from its building, which he wanted for presidential vacation quarters. Scientists around the world signed petitions, and journalists wrote stories. The plan was delayed, and the Institute still has its home. While I was researching the story, though, some scientists told me off the record that some of the collections had already been lost or compromised--the victim not of famished residents or Nazi air raids but of economic hard times and political indifference. Cold storage can preserve seeds but not always their viability; seeds are meant to be grown out and recollected. Plants are meant to live in gardens, tough out winters, benefit from genetic exchange with wild neighbors.

Toward the end of the siege of Leningrad, after Nikolai Vavilov himself had perished in one of Stalin's prisons of some combination of malnourishment and maltreatment, biologists at the Institute that would eventually bear his name risked intense shelling outside the city to grow out some of the seeds in their care in experimental stations and fields. In doing so they increased the food supply while replenishing and reinvigorating their seed bank.

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Elise Blackwell is the author of four novels: Hunger, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, Grub, and An Unfinished Score. She directs the MFA program at the University of South Carolina. More

Elise Blackwell is the author of four novels: Hunger, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, Grub, and An Unfinished Score. She directs the MFA program at the University of South Carolina.

Hunger has been translated into several languages and named to several best of the year listsincluding the Los Angeles Times and Sydney Morning Herald. It was the inspiration for The Decemberists' "When the War Came," which is also about the Vavilov Institute during the siege of Leningrad.

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